Stephen Ambrose introduces us to his book by setting the scene on the morning after the Allies begin their assault on the European continent. We are introduced to Lt. Waverly Wray, the XO for Company D of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Through the next few pages of the prologue Ambrose illustrates heroism within Lieutenant Wray demonstrating a certain strength that would carry the U. S. and her allies through the War. In terrain unfamiliar to American soldiers Lt. Wray moves through thick hedgerows unbeknown to several enemy officers Wray suprises them and kills eight Germany soldiers with a single shot to the head.
Later in this section Ambrose asks the question how well General George C. Marshalll and that relative handful of professional officers serving in the U. S. Army in 1940 had done in creating and army of citizen soldiers…?. From his utilization of Lt. Wray, Ambrose seems to indicate that the American men of this decade would rise to this task. After Allies established themselves on the beaches of the European Continent the difficult push through the French countryside began. As the American Army advanced they became hindered by the unexpected nature of this terrain.
From ancient times French farms had been separated by tall thick brush known as hedgerows. These Hedgerows proved difficult for an advancing infantry to move through. The difficult nature of movement was further enhanced by the excellent covered defenses the hedgerows provided to the Germans. The fighting in these terrain features had not been expected by the U. S. Army, intelligence had overlooked these obstacles and soldiers as a result did not receive the proper training needed. Techniques to overcome these obstacles had to be learned as the infantry advanced. This inadequate preparation cost lives and time.
Slowly, American ingenuity prevailed as tank crews and infantry members tested methods to defeat the encountered obstacles. Working together, the tank and infantry developed successful methods of breaching these features. One such improvement that would latter proves to essential to American success, was that of improved communications between armor, infantry and aircraft. In truly united fashion the infantry supported tanks, aircraft supported infantry all in a combined efforts to push toward Germany. Once the push out of the hedgerows had succeeded, the Allies had the Germany Army on the defensive closing the distance toward Germany.
The communications that developed from the hedgerow fighting worked at near perfection devastating enemy positions. Ambrose illustrated this teamwork in the example of Hill 317. Lieutenant Robert Weiss and the men of the 2nd Battalion held a key position on Hill 317. As German forces surrounded these men for five days they successfully held with the help of air support and artillery. From their vantage point on the hill 2nd Battalion was able to observe enemy movements and call for supporting fire. As the days went by and ammunition supplies dwindled it seemed that the men of the 2nd would be forced to surrender.
Attempts to resupply the 2nd failed, batteries were near dead eliminating their capability call support, at almost the last minute the 2nd Battalion was relieved by elements of the 35th Division. The efforts of those on Hill 317 halted the German thrust to the coast. The wounded German Army was forced to retreat or be annialhated. The retreating Army soon became a running mass of individuals. The combined efforts of air and ground forces tormented the retreating Germans at an unstoppable pace.
As one Corporal from the 2nd Panzer Division recalled, the only thought many had was Out! Out! Out!. As thousands of Germanys most rugged were running for the protection of their border, many chose to exit the war by surrendering to the British or American Armies. One such example was that of the American soldier unknowingly finding a spot to rest next to a German soldier who in the morning wakened the American so he could surrender himself to this GI. The push had been successful and the Germans were on the verge of defeat. The push toward Berlin brought the allies to Hurtgen Forest. The landings of D-Day had taken a large toll on combat units yet they marched forward.
At certain point within the chapter Amborse tells us that many units suffered in excesses of 100 percent casualty rates. The Hurtgen Forest is described as a thick, dark, and ominous location to make an effort to dislodge the enemy from its fortified defense. American soldiers were unable to utilize their effective support that had been so beneficial through out hedgerows. Terrain and rendered tank support useless and the thick forest canopy prevented use of air support. Movement forward was slow and costly, German fortifications proved to be formidable.
Soldiers went days without rest and dry clothing having a discouraging effect on the troops. Ambrose also hints at the inadequacies of the Armys senior leadership. A key point mentioned, was the lack of true understanding by senior leaders of the combat situation facing their troops. Leadership tended not to visit the front lines failing to comprehend the difficulties of those at the front but the strengths of junior officers and NCOs carried the Army through. This ineffective command as Ambrose points out, lead to many lives being lost without real reason.
The soldiers in the Hurtgen forest gain territory that impact positively on the efforts against the Germans. A successful push to the German boarder had promoted an atmosphere of contentment; soldiers turned their attentions toward home and were caught off guard as the Wehrmacht pushed forward. In its early moments only General Eisenhower understood the complete implications of this development. Hitler had gambled that The Allies would be slow to act allowing a firm foothold from which to regain the upper hand. The Germans succeeded in breaking the American lines in the Ardennes.
Caught off balance many American units fell quickly to the giant German force mounted to regain the momentum the Germans enjoyed in 1940. This new German force was unknown to American Intelligence and was equipped with the latest tools to roll off production lines. The ensuing confusion promoted many to retreat and later it became a mass exodus for individuals. Eisenhower, grasping the situation ordered the 82nd and 101st to reinforce the shoulders of the penetration. As these soldiers were transported into position they came in contact with their fellow soldiers running for safety.
The Germans inflicted a serious wound on the American lines but not on the American will to right a wrong. The Allies would seize this opportunity to cutem off and chew em up. The Germans were about to receive a pounding. The retreating American soldiers came to a place where they would no longer be allowed to fall back. Even after a difficult march the tired and weary soldiers had a heart felt determination to hold at the village of Elsenborn. Occupying a key position between Eifel and Antwerp the Germans need this previously neglected point.
The determination the American soldiers held at Elsenborn would signal to German leadership the underestimation placed on the American warrior. This courage is best illustrated in Ambroses highlighting of the surrounding of Bastogne and the 101st . Along with elements of the 10th Armored, combat engineers, anti-aircraft units the 101st was surrounded by a German Division. These soldiers held off the Germans time after time. At one point the German Co would ask for the honorable surrender of those with in the encircled town.
The reply to this request was a simple and defying Nuts. These units received further supplies and continued to hold off the Germans until the dramatic rescue by the forces of General Patton. The weather had prevented the Allied use of Air power yet as the weather improved and missions were flown, the German advance truly came to crippling halt. 1944 like every other year brought the otherwise joyous celebration of Christmas. For both German and American this was a time set aside the horrors of combat for the peaceful thoughts of the season.
During the Ardennes Campaign there was no agreed to cease fire, but soldiers enjoyed a sense of peace, if only within themselves. Ambrose writes of Christmas carols being sung on both sides of the line. Such small scenes were spread through out the ETO. Front line soldiers decorated foxholes, men in burnt-out buildings enjoyed feast of scavenged goods. The very terrain in which they fought provided a setting fitting the occasion, the tall green trees, pure white snow and the stillness of nature. With all of this the war continued.
Bombing runs continued, Ambushes conducted and foxholes dug and men died. This chapter highlighted the mental and emotional anguish war places on the individual. Years of technological advancements altered the conduct of WWII enabling Armies to kill around the clock. The once secure darkness now added to the dangers of combat. Warming fires could not be lit; the slightest noise arose suspicion and tension. The endless existence of front-line soldiers in foxholes isolated them from partners and friends. Constant exposure to weather effected the health of these units.
The inadequacies of the Army supplied equipment and the lack of empathy on the part of leadership only intensified these conditions. Soldiers faced constant vigilance having a toll on their mental states. Ambrose quotes Grays fitting statement in the tyranny of the present. Soldiers passed the time by creating games or stretched simple tasks as much as possible for fear of having nothing to do. Ambrose quotes a Sargent who keenly grasps the chapter in his single statement Holding the line didnt mean just sitting in foxholes waiting for something to happen.
It meant a continual battle against trench foot and mental depression, sweating out artillery barrages which the enemy habitually sent in at chow time and nights which were lighted with flares and flashes, fighting off enemy patrols… [but most of all] it meant hours and days of deadly boredom An essential part of the soldiers ability to deal with these difficulties was his buddy. These men bounded like no other friends. They learned of each others histories, desires for the future and fears of the present. The necessity for these bonds comes at a cost since war brings death at a random pace.
Friendships are broken in gruesome ways having long and lasting effects on those unfortunate to experience such devastation. As one interviewed soldier put it You have to keep going… There was no time to mourn the dead, even if they were good friends. Through all of this, soldiers continued, fully aware of the consequences if the failed to do so. As with many beuracracies the Army was entrenched with certain method, many of which were not logical or efficient. The Armys method of replacement and reinforcement was one such system of inefficiency. In-theater forces became drastically reduced in number.
Replacements came from rear echelon units or from new recruits from states-side. The training for these new combat soldiers was largely incomplete and inadequate. Many soldiers were inexperienced with their weapons even as they arrived on-line. Eisenhowers method of dispersing these new soldiers was to deal them out individually, sacrificing any comradery established as well as introducing these outsiders to already cohesive units. These inexperienced and lost soldiers were not afforded the tools and knowledge needed to last through such conditions. Many were killed due to details or combat they did not know.
Ambrose gives us an example the benefits of this greenness, at least in one case. A new platoon leader (PL) was given the assignment of capturing a home. The PL proceeds to simply walk up to the house, knock on the door and seemingly explain his request to the German sergeant who answers the door. The German sergeant gathers his men as well as the Americans in the area, and without a shot being fired, the Germans formally surrenders to the American commander. Ambrose points to leaderships emphasis on quantity ahead of quality as the reason for the needless loss of many lives.
The failure to train, the lack of R&R afforded to frontline units as well as the failure to promote communication between those with and without experience are key reasons behind such needless losses. In this chapter Ambrose reminds us that there were others who suffered through this war and here he highlights those involved with the Air War. Many may see pilots and aircrew as having a somewhat easier time than the foot soldier but the reality is that they too faced the horror of combat. The torment aircrews went through may not have been similar to that of ground warriors but they were none-the-less were tormented.
Each bombing mission or escort mission had to face an enemy who was not eager to let such missions continue. The Germans would send up their own fighters or screens of flack to try and knock the planes from the air. With such opposition many aircrew were mentally tortured, as they had to fly a required number of missions. Cases of 109 jitters and stress took their toll on this group of men. Flying thousands of feet up in cold, cramped and sometimes lonely positions only added to their stress. The continuous torture of not knowing who would return seems very similar to the ground soldiers unknowingness.
Ambrose later asks the question of the benefits of this war and finally concludes, the war could not have been won without them. I agree completely the air war quickly gain a superior advantage which enabled the Army to carry on with out fear of the German air threat. The work of medical personnel is often overlooked to the success of the military. From the front line medic to the psychiatrist in the rear they each had an essential role in returning men to the lines. As the fighting raged field medics often faced dangerous situations motivated only by their desire to help.
Many medics, as Ambrose points out, were respected on both sides for their efforts and skills. Medics were often the one individual infantry elements were driven to protect. The destruction war can cause on the human body so effected those who dealt with it that it was interesting to read how many seemed to never want anything to do with the profession again. In one case a medic stated if given the opportunity to do it again he would chose to do a mechanical form of maintenance. Wartime nurses gave injured soldiers reasons to smile and take their minds of the war. Nurses also had to deal with societies angst of women in combat.
Many of these courageous women suffered alienation from friends and family members. Combined with the efforts of the medics and doctors this component of the American war machine succeeded in returning the majority of casualties back to duty. In one astonishing statistic of medical service is the rate of success for Air evacuation. Of 1,176,048 transported worldwide only forty-six lost their lives en route. In addition to the technical advancements within the medical field of the time it seems far more conclusive that the internal drive and motivations of these individuals made the difference in lives saved.
With all of its hero and heroines the U. S. military had its share less than honorable persons. In such a large-scale operation there are inevitably those who will pursue personal goal rather than those of the collective group. In a struggle for what is right it is sad to learn that there were those motivated by greed and self-gain. These profiteers stole supplies and materials aimed at helping soldiers live and defeat their opposition. In one example an entire train and its content destined for front line soldiers simply disappeared.
Rear echelon troops often took the best most favored supplies for they completely disregarding the tremendous boost such items may have had on the front line. Ambrose also informs us of those individuals who were so inflated with rank or position that in minor way they added to the difficulties of war. These individuals placed needless controls on those already burdened with the difficulties of just trying to stay alive. Another example of those who only detracted from the full potential of Americas military are those who worked against integration of black soldiers into all units.
As thousands of Black Americans volunteered to serve the country on the front lines, many worked to prevent such a situation. The military was in need of fit young men who were willing to fight bravely yet the Army failed to utilize the potential of these black soldiers. By far it is the bravery of those involved in this conflict that will be remembered generations from now. On some level it is saddening to think of how many those lost would not have had to be if only the team could truly have worked together. An Army often does not loss most of its soldiers to death and injury many are captured and held by the enemy.
Treatment of POWs can be seen as a reflection of the tensions between both sides. Tensions between Americans and Germans was high, there are examples of both sides mistreatment of those surrendering or attempting to surrender. American prisoners were forced to endure inhumane conditions of travel and living. Ambrose gives us examples of men eating maggots as their only source of protein. By far it seems German prisoners in American hands fared much better than Americans in German hands. To learn Germans were allowed to go to movies unescorted in American cities is amazing.
While this practice was beneficial to American farmers it is hard to imagine such treatment of those following the most hated man in history. Ambrose also points that such treatment of these POWs was more humane than the treatment of Black Americans adding to the distaste this leaves me with. The lessons gained from this book were both insightful and encouraging. I enjoyed reading this book and look forward to reading others by this author. The ease of which he presented this material made this history understandable and allowed for a personal connection to those who lived it.